During the July drought the storm ditch shrank until it was no wider than my waist. One afternoon, walking by to fetch my son at day care, I noticed a wrinkle in the water, the dull glow of small bodies surfacing. Spade-shaped foreheads, Chinese whiskers: catfish. They huddled uneasily, like a group of Mandarins wondering when the mob of peasants would surround them.
Catfish are garbage scows, sifting mud, chicken bones and beer cans, converting their scavengery into children. Walking off under the parched sweetgum trees, I thought of Malthus and his logarithms of starvation, the gas-light trembling in his brandy glass as he revised his estimates of how many populations were negligible, which color, which class.
After a week of dry white sky the water had dilated to a single pool, a black eye full of writhing bodies: there must have been a hundred. Five or six wriggled on the moist mud as if trying to trick evolution into mercy. Those who were left the next day were bigger but no better off. On the third day there was nothing but a stench, criss-crossed raccoon tracks in the mud and a few still-damp bodies no bigger than my fingers.
I thought of the million unspeakable lives trapped in the reservoir tip of a condom, the skulls that were said to dot the plain of Waterloo like lumps of spring snow. When the raw ditch of disasters nicknamed history dries up, there will be a skin of lime-white dust stretched over the yellow mud of Jews, the black mud of slaves, the clay of peasants and hunters and gatherers, and that grave will be larger by a hundred catfish. My nine-month son, slumped in the backpack, sweated and tried to sleep through all this standstill thinking.
I thought of the minnows I used to blow in half with my BB pistol, perched on a conduit pipe in the wet, thick Carolina heat, rehearsing for nothing but the moment my father would look at me, turn and reach above the mantel for the rifle that his father had given him when he, too, was seven years old.